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President Schapiro: The future of Mexico relies on higher education

MEXICO CITY, Mexico -- Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro underscored the critical role higher education can play in unlocking Mexico’s economic potential as he led a University delegation here last week to launch a partnership with Universidad Iberoamericana (Ibero), one of the country’s most prestigious schools.

The memorandum of understanding signed by the president of Northwestern and Ibero’s president Father David Fernández will foster student exchanges, faculty collaboration and joint work in areas of strength and scholarship between the two universities.

“Not only am I looking forward to the sisterhood we’re creating with Ibero, we look forward to learning from what you do so brilliantly here already,” President Schapiro said, addressing a crowd of Ibero students and faculty who gathered for his lecture on the intersection of economics and the humanities.

Ibero Academic Vice Chancellor Sylvia Schmelkes gave a presentation prior to the signing, highlighting an ambitious new undergraduate curriculum that seeks to promote interdisciplinary learning, improve the students’ teamwork acumen and offer a well-rounded mix of technical and human skills.

“Ibero is one of the best in Mexico and is known to offer a broader selection of disciplines,” said Dévora Grynspan, vice president for international relations at Northwestern, who was part of the delegation visiting Mexico Nov. 30-Dec. 3.  “We were impressed with what we saw today, and we look forward to bringing our students here and bringing Ibero’s students to Northwestern.”

During the visit to Mexico’s sprawling capital city, President Schapiro also met with Northwestern alumni, including trustee and alumnus Fernando Chico ’76 MBA (’13 P), who played a key role in the partnership with Ibero. Kellogg School of Management Dean Francesca Cornelli also joined President Schapiro on the trip and met with Kellogg alumni in Mexico City.

Northwestern also has an existing partnership with Universidad Panamericana in Mexico, collaborating in the areas of public health, business and law.

Push for more interdisciplinarity

In a lecture at Ibero, President Schapiro promoted the need for more dialogue between disciplines in higher education, and he encouraged the exploration of ways to incentivize faculty members to incorporate other fields into their own research.

He cited examples from his book, “Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities,” to show how economists should follow not just the perceived certainty of mathematics and statistics, but find clues in the social sciences about human nature and how it responds to various economic incentives and drives outcomes.

“By reaching out to the allied humanistic social sciences, our [economic] predictions could be more accurate and our economic policies could be more effective, and very importantly more just,” President Schapiro said.

The president also highlighted the mixed track record of macroeconomics and how advice from the World Bank and similar institutions to developing countries over the years may not have worked as expected -- in no small part due to a lack of understanding local culture and history, he said.

Answering a question from the audience regarding how to develop this interdisciplinary way of thinking on campus, President Schapiro said it’s easier said than done. But he urged universities to find ways to incentivize faculty to teach with one another and work together.

“One thing you might do is, when you have a center you can give faculty appointments to that center,” Schapiro told the audience. Another idea, he said, is to assign actual faculty lines to those centers.

Encouraging faculty to teach classes jointly with other colleagues from different disciplines can also be transformational, he added. 

Mexico’s future

During the four-day trip, President Schapiro spoke to members of the media, including Mexico’s leading business magazine, Expansión, and the TV network and daily national newspaper Milenio. He emphasized the critical role higher education will play in Mexico’s economic future.

In his interviews, he highlighted research showing strong correlation between countries that devote more resources to education and their ability to grow more rapidly. He added that education is the best way to ensure income mobility.

As Mexico grapples with an economic transformation, President Schapiro said that supporting research is key for the government to help unlock true economic growth. He also stressed the importance of inclusion and providing educational opportunity for all.

The future of the Mexican economy, he said, depends on supporting higher education.

Engaging alumni

President Schapiro also met with members of the NU-Kellogg Club of Mexico.

“After I graduated from Northwestern I started seeing the benefits of being a Northwestern alum over the course of my life,” said Enrique Carral Trevino ’07, who obtained his B.S. in chemical engineering from the McCormick School of Engineering and later embarked on a career spanning consulting and entrepreneurship.

“Having seen these benefits, it gives me the natural impulse to support our community and make it grow,” he added. Carral is the co-president of the NU-Kellogg Alumni Club in Mexico.